Jan 182017

by Alia Azmat

sunset-690240_1280This morning I woke up, scrolled through my social media accounts, and found this. Curious and excited by the title, I wondered what this author had to say to someone like me. Then I read it. I read about how my biological clock is running out. I read about how I need to lower my standards, to find Mr. Suitable instead of Mr. Perfect (for me). I read about how I need to give [men] a chance because they are “surprisingly lovely.” I was told to look my best. That it is unreasonable to believe a man or his family could want, or desire me, for qualities beyond my body. I was NOT told to think critically about what I’d like my life after marriage to look like. What qualities I bring to a relationship, what qualities and markers of faith I am willing to negotiate with a potential partner or spouse.

What hurts is knowing other young women and girls are reading what I consider to be a toxic article about their worth and the importance of their existence in this world. The letter below is the letter I wish I had read this morning. This is the letter I wish someone had shown me as I turned 26. Muslim or non-Muslim, Asian, Arab or another ethnicity, maybe there is an alternative way to thinking about ourselves over 25.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
You are not being “too picky,” “too proud,” “too selfish.” Life doesn’t stop once you have a ring on your finger. Life doesn’t start when you have a ring on your finger either. You are not expired. You are not unlovable. Your worth is not tied to your marital status, or ability to make babies, or keep house. Your worth is tied to your existence. Your humanity.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe this “narrow window of opportunity” is a system of oppression, one which values women’s youth, fertility, physical beauty, their ability to perform demure femininity. Maybe you do not fit that mold. Maybe you fit that mold but are not interested in sharing that with anyone. Maybe you haven’t been satisfied with suitors. Maybe some suitors did not allow you to express your version of a complete woman. Maybe some suitors were not willing to work alongside you. Maybe some suitors forgot their own humanity in engaging with you. You deserve to be yourself. You deserve someone who honors your humanity.

Maybe you fell in love, but your family didn’t accept him. Maybe you fell in love but he didn’t share your faith tradition. It is not your fault for having hope. Maybe you found someone, connected with someone, planned a life with someone, only to have his family reject you. Maybe the only place to put the pain of that rejection was within yourself. Maybe you were told it was your fault he touched you, cheated on you, stole from you, betrayed you.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe you are South Asian, maybe you are Arab, Afghan, Eritrean, Sudanese, a convert to Islam, maybe you are Christian woman, a Jewish woman, or another woman of faith who has been told by friends, family, cultural, and religious messaging that you are not enough, without a spouse. Maybe you are single because you had the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship. Maybe you are widowed and still grieving the loss of your life partner. Maybe you are managing parenthood on your own. Maybe you are 26, 30, or 36. Who decided 25 means we are unwanted?

Maybe this is how the patriarchy works. Maybe you have started to believe being alone is abnormal, or aberrant. Maybe God calls upon the lonely, maybe God calls upon, and encourages solitude.

Maybe you believe you aren’t beautiful enough. But, beauty is an edge of becoming. Maybe you sit at the edge of emerging fullness, maybe your grace and elegance and respectful, autonomous character, your desire for justice and equity, are qualities invisible to the superficial eyes of a culture which expects and thrives of solely bodily objectification. Maybe you were told you are too large, too dark, too loud, or not loud enough. Maybe you were told you make too much money or not enough money. Maybe you are too educated or not educated enough. Maybe you have hurt yourself, starved yourself, drank yourself into oblivion trying to meet unattainable, unjust cultural expectations of yourself. I am here to tell you, the drive to do more, be more, eat less, weigh less, whiten-up, dress down, are constructed to control you, not him.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. Maybe your younger sister got married before you. Maybe your dad is upset you would rather pursue a master’s degree or a Ph.D. than “settle down” right now. Maybe your mom wants to see you happy, but doesn’t know what to tell the local aunties about your singlehood. Maybe you feel obligated to talk to suitors to reduce the tension bubbling in your family. Maybe they also fear the uncertainty. Maybe your disability has stopped suitors from coming into the door. Maybe you aren’t interested in male suitors.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE BRAVE. Maybe you have been punished, instead of celebrated, in the past for using your voice. You are brave when you say, “I am worthy, I am enough, it is not my fault, I am not a burden”, silently to yourself. Maybe these whispers are new forms of dhikr. Maybe you refuse to be silenced. You are brave when you silence the self-doubt. You are brave when you invest in yourself and have the courage to say, “no” to a suitor who will suppress your dignity, your personhood. You are brave when you let yourself feel angry, feel sad, feel hurt by how much society expects from you without asking what it can do for you. You are brave when you pursue your dreams, when you reach out to help another, when you embrace the uncertainty of what being single/divorced/widowed at 25+ means for you.

You are brave when you request to talk to your family or friends on the impact #muslimgirlmicroaggressions have on your well-being. You are brave when you honor your trauma. When you reach out for help with your depression, your anxiety, your PTSD, your social nerves — all natural and appropriate responses to existing at the intersection of identities. You are brave when you make space for yourself to grieve the loss of opportunities. You are brave when you hold on to your faith identity. You are brave when you work through feelings of guilt and shame related to your single-lady existence. You are brave when you give yourself permission to be yourself. To be anything less than “perfect.” You are brave when you say “yes” to your journey towards radical self-love, self-compassion, self-acceptance. You are brave when you leave your home, though you may want to stay home, covered up.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,

Yours in solidarity,

Alia Azmat is a trainer for HEART Women & Girls and is currently also pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology.

Nov 182016

*Trigger Warning for sexual assault

This past weekend, survivor advocate an HEART board member Jenan Mohajir performed a story that she has been working in partnership with Chicago’s 2nd Story to produce. Her first performance this weekend came in the midst of a national outrage related to the surfacing of a video in which Trump brags about his entitlement to sexual assault.

This story delves deep into Jenan’s experiences working to support the brave men and women who came forward last year with allegations of sexual violence against prominent imam Abdullah Saleem, and other perpetrators, at his Quran school, Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Illinois. A civil and criminal case began simultaneously in February 2015.
After a long criminal case, Abdullah Saleem plead guilty to all charges of sexual assault in August 2016. The civil case still continues.

This is the story of a survivor and his advocate. You will hear about the devastation, vicarious trauma, and helplessness one feels during a situation like this. You will also hear about a woman who was inspired by her faith to continue to serve these brave individuals, and to channel the inner strength to be able to show up for them in a way the larger community was not able to.

Listen below to a powerful story. Please take care of yourself as you listen to it. According to rainn.org, we know that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Even though these statistics are not specific to any one community, we have no reason to believe that these are any different in the Muslim community. If you, or someone you know is a survivor, know that you are not alone, and know that there are many people out there who want to help you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us or any number of other organizations and hotlines that are committed to helping survivors find healing and justice.
This story was produced by 2nd Story and performed at Pub626.

If you are specifically a victim of Abdullah Saleem or a different perpetrator at IIE, or anyone else, please do not hesitate to contact us if you need help, services, or just some place to talk, by emailing us today at heartwg@gmail.com.

Jun 242016

by Nadiah Mohajir

Father and daughter with glasses watching a video on the moile phone while traveling in train

Father and daughter with glasses watching a video on the moile phone while traveling in train

It happens to every parent: yesterday you were holding them in your arms, protecting them and their innocence. Yet, you quickly realize that even as young as 2 or 3, children are curious, intelligent little beings that are looking for answers about the way life works: including, of course, their bodies and how they came into the world. Like many of your peers, you are so. not. ready. The time has come for you to have “the talk” with them.

Some of you may want to start young and have conversations throughout childhood and adolescence, others may want to wait until the later elementary school years. Many of you want to have this conversation, but hesitate with embarrassment or confusion: is having an open, honest conversation about sex while still setting values or expectations possible? At HEART Women & Girls, we believe that it is, and hope to offer you some tips on how to begin this important conversation. Please do refer to our recent guide for Muslim parents on having these conversations with their kids.

Start Early. While most parents delay this conversation until just before puberty, it is crucial to begin these conversations as early as 3. There are many ways to have these conversations in age appropriate ways, so as to build off the knowledge as the child gets older.Ongoing, developmentally appropriate conversations have a few more advantages. For example, it normalizes topics related to sex and sexuality so that it is not seen as a shameful or embarrassing topic. Introducing these concepts throughout the elementary and adolescent years lays a foundation for lifelong critical decision-making and healthy relationships. And perhaps most importantly, as mentioned earlier, these conversations allow you to talk openly about your family’s values and expectations about sex and sexuality.

Keep the conversation going. The most important component of “the talk” for parents to remember is that it should be ongoing, throughout a child’s elementary and adolescent years. Though historically these conversations have been portrayed as being only a one-time lecture from parent to child, it is hard to imagine that one conversation will suffice. Even if you are well-prepared for this talk, one conversation cannot adequately equip a child with the information and skills they need for a lifelong set of experiences. Put another way, when children attend school, they learn academic subjects like math, science, and English, and as they grow older, the concepts build on each other and get more complicated, which ultimately provides them with a comprehensive understanding of the subject. In the same way, repeated, age-appropriate conversations about puberty and sex are crucial to give them information they need to fully process the big picture and figure out how they fit in it.

Encourage Questions. Giving kids permission to ask you questions openly and answering them honestly builds trust and creates a safe space for them to come to you in the future with questions as well.

Provide Information. Where can your child go for more information? Of course, he/she always has you to come to, but teaching your child to identify other trustworthy sources of information – both people in their lives as well as internet sources – is a very important skill to help them develop. They will then be able to ascertain the differences between legitimate websites and not so accurate websites, as well as will know which adults – in addition to you – they can seek help from should they need it.

Emphasize consent. Unfortunately, we live in a time when sexual violence is rampant. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 4 girls and 1 and 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18. There is no racial, ethnic, or religious community immune to sexual violence. It is crucial that you explore situations involving boundaries and consent, as they are useful skills to have when thinking about sexual violence and healthy relationships. This information can help lay the foundation for healthy relationships in the future, and can also prepare your child to be that resource for their friends and peers if they are ever bystanders in a situation.

Be honest about family values and expectations. Many parents have asked me if it’s possible to be sex positive while still letting their kids know what they expect from them regarding sex. In other words, is setting a framework or guidelines by which young people can abide by conflicting with sex positive, autonomous decision making? It is perfectly ok for parents to lay down their expectations, while acknowledging that their child is old enough to make his/her own choices.

So once the actual biology of sex and reproduction is explained, what does a conversation about how it all plays out in real life and family values look like? We offer just one approach below.


Age 12 and under: Sex is an act between two consenting people. Consent means that both people have agreed to what is happening and can stop at any time they want. In Islam, most believe that sex is only permissible when those two people are married and it is considered an act of worship. Of course, there are many people—Muslim or not—who choose not to wait until marriage because the decision to have sex is different for everyone and requires both parties to think about what factors need to be present to move forward.

While sex can and should bring much pleasure, sex is also an act of great responsibility. People choose to have sex for many reasons, including: to express their love and desire for someone, to fulfill a physical need, or to have children. It is an act that makes you responsible for yourself and your partner.

Age 12 and older: Because it is a responsibility, you must be be prepared for sex. Preparing for sex often involves educating yourself on birth control and contraception options, knowing how to use them, engaging in open communication with your partner, and reflecting on and exploring your values, ideas, and desires before the heat of the moment. If you are not prepared, it may have an effect that you did not plan for. Physical consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Getting pregnant as a teen can make graduating high school and college more difficult. Whenever you decide to have sex, it is your right to have sex with contraception. No one should pressure you to have sex without it. Sex may also have social consequences such as tension in your relationship or friendships. Or it may have spiritual consequences such as guilt you may feel if your family doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.

Remember you also have a responsibility to always honor and respect your own boundaries as well as your partner’s. If you are not comfortable with a particular sexual act, or your partner is not comfortable with a particular sexual act , those feelings should be respected and honored. No means no, and it is your right to not have sex or engage in any other sexual activity if you do not want to.

I hope that you wait until you are [married, 21, an adult, in a committed relationship, enter expectation, if at any, here]. I know that there will be many times you will feel like not waiting, because romantic and sexual desires are natural and sex feels good and we live in a world where the pressure to have sex is overwhelming at times. So, I hope that you will wait too, but I also know you are a very thoughtful girl/boy who will make the best decision for you and your body.

If you found this article helpful, please do check out our publication: Let’s Talk about Sex a Guide for Muslim Parents on having the Talk with their Kids. The guide includes data, useful tips, and exercises that you can do with your child as you prepare them for this important part of life.

Jun 242016

By Nadiah Mohajir

two girls black silhouette and red sunsetLast week, The New York Times published a Mona Eltahawy article with a sexy headline: Sex Talk for Muslim Women. The article chronicled the author’s journey to sexual freedom: growing up in a conservative household, Ms. Eltahawy always knew that sex outside of marriage was not an option, but the older she grew, the more of this vow of abstinence began to feel like a burden. After years of struggling with the guilt and shame that accompanies many women who have sex outside of marriage, Eltahawy says she now enjoys her sexual liberation.

Mona’s story is not unfamiliar to me. I have heard countless stories of women – young and old – who find that their vow of abstinence has shifted from a spiritually motivated choice to a decision laden heavy with resentment. I fully understand and empathize with their sexual frustration. Read more…

Jun 242016

by Shannon Staloch

pregnancy-466129I’m always turning off lights at births.  Sometimes, it’s comical. I’ll walk in to check on the mom, and the lights will be on, lamps, overhead lights, etc. As I leave, I shut them all off with the exception of a candle or two, or a soft lamp.  An hour or so later, I come back to check, once again, lights are blaring. Again, I leave under the cover of night.  It might seem a silly thing for a midwife to focus on, but in fact, it’s essential to the hormones of labor.

Oxytocin is the queen of labor hormones. It is secreted in the posterior pituitary gland. Due to the role it plays in orgasm, birth and breastfeeding, oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone. During orgasm, it is released and contributes to the bonding that occurs between partners after orgasm. In birth, it is the hormone that causes the uterus to contract in a strong and rhythmic fashion.  In breastfeeding it causes the milk to eject from the milk ducts.  These three acts are all acts by their nature, deeply imbued with love, hence the love hormone.

Ina May Gaskin, the famous American midwife, is famous for saying that if a woman doesn’t look beautiful in labor, someone is doing something wrong.  Indeed, the women I attend in labor glow.  To get through a natural labor, a woman must moan, sway her hips, and go deep inside. Many parallels then, can be drawn between sex and birth. Hence, why I am always turning the lights down, it is my attempt to render an intimate and cozy environment, an environment akin to sexual intimacy. Oxytocin is also produced in greater quantities in the dark, when it’s warm, and with familiar people. Some doctors and nurses, recognizing this fact, will also turn down lights and whisper when in a laboring woman’s room.

My midwifery practice is culturally, racially and religiously diverse.  It is more often (not always!) with my Muslim clients that I often see a lack of sexual health and knowledge. Sadly, it seems that in many Muslim homes, young girls are not properly educated about their bodies, nor are they taught to revel in them or celebrate their strength. The link between sexuality and birth begins early in life. It begins with educating young girls about the functions and anatomies of their bodies.  Time and again, I have conversations with women about their menstrual cycle, and am frequently left jaw agape at the utter lack of knowledge of this simple function of a women’s body. Women with college degrees, born and raised in affluent California, have no idea that they are fertile for a short time every month and that there are clear signs from their bodies, heralding that fertility.

Not only that, the lack of conversation, curiosity and knowledge about the female body and its’ functions, seems to convey a sense of shame and embarrassment at the body itself. Recently, I visited one of my clients who had had a C-section. She was just a few days postpartum, and over the phone, had expressed concerns about her baby’s breastfeeding. I am a board certified lactation consultant. I know that mothers with C-sections often have difficulties in establishing breastfeeding and time is of the essence in getting breastfeeding straightened out. When I came to visit, her shirt was buttoned to the top button and she refused to let me observe a breastfeeding session. The baby was obviously hungry, but the shame was so intense that she went against her motherly instincts in order not to expose herself.

In contrast, I recently attended the birth of a fifth time mother. During labor, she was free to move around and change positions. She moaned softly with each contraction, and her face was soft and flushed. Her husband was by her side, holding her hand, supporting her squatting, giving her a back massage, and offering her sips of water throughout the entire labor. She would occasionally look up at him and ask for a kiss. The room was dimly lit, familiar to her, and warm. The baby was born easily and smoothly not long after I arrived. Once she and baby were checked out, I tucked her in and watched as the baby found the nipple all by itself. Her older kids were anxiously waiting outside the door, and even though some of the boys were teenagers, she felt comfortable allowing them in to witness the normalcy and the brilliance of the reproductive functions of the female body.

Birth is linked to sexual health. The more a woman can get in touch with her sexuality and cultivate a positive attitude towards her sexual health, the easier it will be to accept the grand bodily changes of pregnancy, the intensity and physicality of the birth, and to then nurture and nourish her baby through breastfeeding.  Below are six ways to improve your sexual health, and therefore improve your chances of a healthy birth.

    1. Become aware of your pregnant body.  The pregnant body is a thing of wonder, constantly changing, growing, expanding, all the while, growing another life. It’s easy to wax poetic about it. It’s also easy to feel uncomfortable while living inside it. For some women, the burgeoning belly is an announcement of their sex life, and they aren’t comfortable with that.  Because there is so much in the body that calls our attention during pregnancy, it’s an opportune time to get in touch with your body, if you aren’t already in the habit. To the best of your ability, embrace the changes your body is undergoing. Take the time each day to stretch, move, swim, and just marvel at the wonder of your body.
    2. Pay attention to your sexuality.  Does your desire increase or decrease during pregnancy? Because of the changes that occur during pregnancy, many women find arousal and desire increased during this time.  And many don’t!  Where do you fall on that scale?  Are there ways to express your sexuality other than intercourse?  Simply becoming aware of your desire is a huge step in connecting to your sexuality.
    3. Think about the messaging. What messages have you been given about your female body?  When you first menstruated, was it celebrated or shunned?  Were you told to pretend you weren’t on your menstrual cycle?  Were you taught it was dirty?  Or were you lovingly guided to embrace and accept the changes of adolescence?  Although it may not seem like it, these messages can have an impact on your birthing and breastfeeding. Journal some things that stand out, and if necessary, reframe the messaging.
    4. Move your hips! It is said that belly dancing originated in the Arabian Peninsula during births.  Women would surround the birthing women and move and sway their hips rhythmically, in order to show the birthing women how to move through her contractions.  Getting comfortable with this sensual movement is indeed helpful during the pain of labor contractions.  Circling the hips releases tension, and helps to send the contractions straight to the cervix, right where they need to be in order for labor to progress!
    5. Get the straight talk on vaginal exams.  For many women, the thought of vaginal exams makes them squeeze their knees together.  Talk with your doctor or midwife before hand about how you would like them performed, if at all!  Vaginal exams are not always necessary and can be triggering for women who have had unsolicited sexual experiences in the past.  They can also be uncomfortable.  You can request that your provider go slow, allow you to breathe and center yourself before the exam, and talk you through each step.  Prenatally, you can ask your provider under what circumstances exams are necessary.
    6. Baring it all.  You’ve made it through the birth, but now there’s all this breastfeeding! In the West, we live in a society that has sexualized breasts.  I traveled to Senegal when my oldest was a baby.  Even if they were covered head to toe, I was surprised at how easily women breastfed in public. These women weren’t worried about whether or not a square inch of their breast might be exposed; they were more concerned with taking care of their babies needs. Indeed, walking the streets of Senegal, I rarely heard a baby cry despite there being babies everywhere!  Think of ways in which breastfeeding, possibly needing to show your nipples and breasts to a healthcare professional, might affect you.  If it seems difficult, brainstorm ways in which you can get comfortable with this function of the female anatomy.

Female sexuality and healthy birth are linked in a complex and intricate manner; there cannot be one without the other. Let’s stop shunning the relationship between the two and strengthening its connection. The future of birth and babies depends on it.

Shannon Staloch is a mother of three. She has been serving families in the Bay Area as a licensed midwife and lactation consultant for nearly a decade. She also supports families through workshops in holistic health and nutrition. Her website is www.homemadefamilies.com.